New Emissary

Ai Weiwei, Art ‘Godfather’

Experts following the recent ‘art crackdown’ in China suggest Ai draws a distinct line between his activism and art.

I've collaborated with Asia Society on several occasions here now, and have become increasingly convinced that the non-profit organization is an important force for forging closer ties between Asia and the West—that effectively utilizes the universal allure of culture and the arts to build bridges across borders.

Next week, I'll have some more of its new unique initiatives to share, but today I found an interesting discussion on artist and social activist Ai Weiwei, who's been in the news a lot recently following his detention by the Chinese government. This event brought together three experts, one of which was Vice President of Global Art Programs and Museum Director at the Asia Society Melissa Chiu. (The other two participants were Alison Klayman, the director of the upcoming documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Austin Ramzy, Beijing correspondent for TIME). A fuller transcript can be found at Artlog, at this link, but here are some revealing excerpts that came out of the talk:

Melissa Chiu: 'I think Ai Weiwei was especially important when he returned to China. Many artists of Beijing’s East Village have said how he was a mentor to them, even suggesting the name of the East Village. This was around 1994, and since this time he has become something of the godfather of the art world.'

'As far as his political engagement, I have often seen his political activism as quite separate from his art, since his art rarely deals directly with political issues.'

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'There was certainly a relaxation of government attitudes this past decade towards artists. This new crackdown feels a lot like the post-Tiananmen period.'

Alison Klayman: 'Over the course of my documentary project, I started to see the distinction between art and politics less and less and started to believe he lives his life as art. Clichéd, perhaps, and I think (Ai Weiwei) knows the difference between when he’s making art and when he’s posting on Twitter. But I think there’s something about his life and activities as a whole that I think has symbolic value.'

Austin Ramzy: 'Two years ago when visiting Beijing, Hillary Clinton basically said the US would not push as hard on issues like human rights. And while the US still raises the cases of people like Ai Weiwei, I think the Chinese government realizes how thinly stretched the US is.'